The Trump administration in April launched a missile attack on a Syrian air base, apparently as punishment for the Assad regime’s supposed use of chemical weapons against rebel forces. President Assad denied the claims, and asserted that the bombardment by the United States violated the principles of international law.
While the Putin administration supports Syrian claims, it is accepting a visit from US Secretary of State Tillerson. So just how are we to understand the Kremlin’s true intentions, given this inconsistency between word and deed? Just how upset is Russia with the US bombing of Syria?
To answer these questions, first it is necessary to truly understand the Trump administration’s intent.
While it is true that the US military destroyed some airport facilities, the bombardment was limited in scope. First of all, the Americans announced the attack in advance, so there were practically no Russian personnel losses. What’s more, the attack was just a one-time event, so it was more of a warning, giving a sense of a mere symbolic reprimand for the Assad regime.
Clearly, the attack was intended to have political and diplomatic effects. Within the US, it demonstrated the Trump administration’s resolve in the face of President Assad’s use of chemical weapons, in contrast to the Obama administration. In addition, it likely carried implications of restraint for North Korea’s nuclear weapon development under Kim Jong-un, and for China’s Xi Jinping, who is reluctant to try and stop it.
The Assad regime continues to deny any use of chemical weapons at all, so it claims the US attack constituted a serious infringement of Syrian sovereignty. President Putin is taking the Syrian government’s side, and spoke ironically on the matter. “It reminds me of the events in 2003,” he said, referring to the Iraq war, which ended without any proof of the claimed stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction.
But if the Putin administration was truly angry about the US attack on Syria, shouldn’t it demonstrate its objections with actions, not just words—by cancelling the US Secretary of State’s visit to Russia, for example? And yet, President Putin met with Secretary Tillerson himself.
No Desire for War on Two Fronts
From this, then, we can make some rather bold guesses. Within the Russian leadership, there apparently are two sides struggling over the pros and cons of intervening in the Syrian civil war, as well as the methods. It’s impossible to say definitively which side is currently on top.
The first school of thought is that the perfect time to pull out of Syria has come. President Putin first engaged in the Syrian conflict to take the Russian people’s attention away from the economic “triple whammy” of cheap oil, a weak ruble, and Western sanctions. However, continued involvement in this “short, victorious little war” could result in getting bogged down in a quagmire.
Military intervention in Syria is inevitably costing Russia upwards of US$1 million a day. They have no desire to continue a war on two fronts, in eastern Ukraine and in Syria. So based on this thinking, Russia has started looking for an exit strategy. And in actuality, once the Astana Peace Talks, arranged with help from Iran and Turkey, were over, Russia withdrew its naval forces, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.
Yet on the other side, President Assad seems to have other ideas. He seemed unsatisfied with the recapture of Syria’s second city, Aleppo, and was unable to resist the temptation to finish off the opposition forces, and secure their own security.
If my guess is right, it can’t be ruled out that President Assad didn’t get Russia’s approval in advance, but decided to carry out the sarin gas attack on his own. And if that is the case, then he will have made President Putin look like a fool and destroyed a reputation built up by acting as mediator in 2013.
Thrust Into A Grave Dilemma
Fully aware of the Putin administration’s intents mentioned above, Secretary Tillerson has demanded that Russia choose between the US and Syria. However, for President Putin himself, there is a much more important target for his message than either of those two countries: none other than the Russian People. The reason: the Russian people will be voting in a presidential election in March of next year.
President Putin’s popularity and approval ratings do appear solid. However, Russia is currently beset on all sides, with economic “triple whammy” as well as continued unrest, with demonstrations and the recent subway terror attack. Thus, he must be cautious about doing what the US demands, and thus appearing weak in the eyes of his people.
To put it simply, the Syria problem has thrust Putin’s government into a grave, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma. Likely, the key to this problem is discovering the truth over whether or not the Assad regime actually used chemical weapons. Make no mistake, Russia knows that fact and wants more than any other country for proof to be revealed.
Hiroshi Kimura is professor emeritus of Hokkaido University and of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. After graduating from Kyoto University with BA in law, he continued his graduate studies at Columbia University, where he earned PhD in political science (1968).
His recent research has focused on Russian foreign policy in general, and particularly toward Japan. His major publication in English include Distant Neighbors (in 2 volumes) (M. E. Sharpe, 2000), Beyond Cold War to Trilateral Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region (Cambridge, MA: 1992); International Negotiation (St. Martins, 1999), and The Kurilian Knot (Stanford U.P., 2008).
In December 2016 he was named as the 32nd recipient of the annual “Sound Opinion (Seiron) Grand Prize” by the Fujisankei Communications Group.
(Clidk here to read the original article in Japanese)